#192. A wife who is guilty of aldutery must be put to death OR suffer the curse of bareness? (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22; Gal 5:19-21; Rev 21:8 vs Num 5:11-31)


One of the Ten Commandments, preserved both in Exodus 20:14 (E) and Deuteronomy 5:17, is the prohibition against adultery: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

But we actually have to wait until later textual traditions clarify what the punishment of this crime is. Here is what Deuteronomy and Leviticus have to say about the matter.

If a man be found lying with a woman who is a husband’s wife, then the two of them shall die: the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. (Deut 22:22)

A man who will commit adultery with a man’s wife, who will commit adultery with his neighbor’s wife, shall be put to death: the adulterer and the adulteress. (Lev 20:10)

Although these texts present the man as the initiator in the act, it nevertheless clearly stipulates that both the man (adulterer) and the woman, the wife of another (adulteress), are to be put to death. Period, no exception.

Yet Numbers 5:11-31, which is officially entitled “the instruction (torah) for jealousies,” states something else. Although the circumstances for this adultery are specific, it nonetheless leaves the woman alive, albeit now stricken with a curse of bareness.

The torah of jealousies details two jealousies:

  1. a woman, a man’s wife, who goes astray and sleeps with another man, but this act remains unknown, hidden; there are no witnesses
  2. a husband who suffers a spirit of jealousy over his wife, thinking that she has become impure, i.e., suspecting she has committed adultery

In both these cases, and since the alleged crime is unknown, the woman is brought to a priest who concocts a potion meant to uncover the adultery, or in the case of innocence uncover no act of adultery. The priest writes a curse on a piece of parchment which basically states that if the woman has committed adultery then her “womb shall swell and her thighs shall sag”—most likely a metaphor for bareness. The priest then dissolves the parchment with the curse on it in water, and the woman drinks the potion. If the woman has sworn by the curse, drinks it, and is in fact adulterous, then the curse becomes reality: “the woman will become a curse among her people.”

Although in this specific case the woman is the initiator of the adultery, she nevertheless gets off easy: bareness instead of death.

Curious, however, the last phrase of this passage—“she shall bear her crime”—might suggest that she is to be put to death, i.e., bearing the penalty of her adultery, which, according to all other traditions in the Hebrew Bible (cf. Ez 16:38) and even those of the New Testament (Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:5; Jn 8:4-11; Rev 21:8), is death. But it is curious that this is never explicitly stated in the passage, but rather that she “will become [remain?] a curse among the people.”

If the Old Testament punishment for adultery is death, then Jesus’ intensification of these Old Testament commandments in Matthew 5:18-48 leads to a startling conclusion. Matthew’s Jesus re-defines adultery as the act of just thinking about another woman!

“You have heard that it was said to those of old ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.” (Matt 5:27-29)

What is implied in this excerpt, especially in verse 29, is that the Old Testament punishment for adultery, excepting Num 5, is still adhered to here in Matthew—death! Even though death is now re-envisioned and re-interpreted in light of a new doctrine that emerges in the second temple period—namely resurrection and an eternal post-mortem life—it is still nevertheless the punishment for adultery: permanent death, no post-mortem rebirth. The same conclusion can also be found in Paul (Gal 5:19-21) and the author of Revelation (21:8). And although John’s Jesus stops an adulteress from bearing her crime—death—the passage (Jn 8:4-11) remains silent on the other understanding of death, i.e., whether she is permanently dead at her death or resurrected. Furthermore, the passage does not negate the Old Testament punishment of death. It merely chases off the adulteress’ accusers—stating that no man condemns her. Perhaps then she becomes similar to the adulteress of Numbers 5?

At any event, and on the whole, both the Old and the New Testament deem death as the ultimate punishment for adultery—whether that means the putting to death of someone’s life or the permanent death of an individual in a post-mortem resurrection theology.

10 thoughts on “#192. A wife who is guilty of aldutery must be put to death OR suffer the curse of bareness? (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22; Gal 5:19-21; Rev 21:8 vs Num 5:11-31)

  1. Good point about how being adversarial might actually pay off. Certainly, for the books I haven’t read, I can at least say that the titles are challenging and quasi-blasphemous (at least for a fundamentalist Christian). “Did God Have a Wife?” Wha?! “Jesus Never Existed.” Well, okay then. But they do successfully attract people who are open-minded and curious.

    And as you said, you are clear about how you are defending the original texts, so that’s certainly pro-something.

    Well, in a nutshell, it sounds to me like the editors are just being conservative. They get tons of submissions all the time — after all, “of making many books there is no end” — so they are trying to quickly gauge how many people are interested in your work by seeing how many followers you have on Twitter, etc. I do agree that this is disappointing, but maybe it’s worth playing their game anyway?

    That being said, I feel that you probably just haven’t found the right person to talk to yet. I seem to see other books in the area of Bible criticism being published which are by authors who are not popular pundits and who are not strong on social media (e.g. “Jesus Never Existed”?). I know that practically all authors say it’s hard to get published, and it just takes a lot of perseverance, so I’m sure you’ll get your breakthrough eventually.

    1. KW, thanks for your support. I apologize for my long absence since the last time I posted. I’m currently trying to sort out the different festival calendars in the sources—there are 5, Leviticus 23, where we are, being one of them—and hopefully in a day or two I will start posting these contradictions, finish Leviticus, and move on to Numbers.

  2. Dr. DiMattei: It sounds like editors are telling you that you need to be a popularizer or ambassador for the subject, a la Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson, which is obviously a whole other ballgame from being a writer, and something that not a lot of academics would be comfortable with, but maybe you could pull it off.

    My advice if you get on Oprah is to use small words and to be pro-something, not con-something. In other words, not “it’s horrible how people misread the Bible and look at all these contradictions”, and more “it’s exciting what reading the Bible as a collection of historical documents teaches us about the culture of the time” — or something like that. Of course, it’s possible that the very nature of your work is inherently adversarial towards the viewpoints of too many Americans, and your work would be “too hot” for someone like Oprah to touch (and she is all about positive vibes, anyway, not critical literary scholarship).

    Then again, if you can’t get on Oprah, perhaps a short appearance on Fox News would do the trick ;-)

    1. No, in fact the editors and agents are not even reading my material. That’s the problem. They are prejudging the book’s marketability based, erroneously it must be confessed, on my social-media presence, or lack thereof. There seems to be a total lack of creative and independent thinking here, and accurate assessment of a book’s marketability. At some point I will offer a couple chapters that can be downloaded here, as soon as I figure out how to convert PDFs to e-reader formats. And yes, certainly, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, there are many different rhetorical ways to present myself and the projects I’m involved with. For starters, as I’ve often said here before, my goal is to defend the biblical texts and their authors, to accurately present and understand what they wrote, why, and to whom, before these once separate texts and their competing views and agendas were co-opted by later generations of readers, for purposes other than these texts’ original intentions, to create the Torah of Moses in the 4th c. BC or “the Book/Bible” in the 2nd c. AD. Thus, in large part, the conversation I’d like to pursue in the public realm is one which addresses the implications behind modern (mis)understandings of these divergent texts as “the Book,” modern (mis)understandings of God and his role in modern concepts and ideas of religion and salvation when compared to the portraits of Yahweh, and the ideas and beliefs of these texts’ individual and divergent authors, modernized and uncontextualized (mis)readings and (mis)understandings of these texts, their authors, and the historical and literary worlds in which they wrote, etc.—the latter of which are completely neglected, and unknown, to modern assessments of these texts’ meaning and purpose. What if what we as a culture think the Bible is is not only inaccurate and different from how its once individual texts were viewed by their various authors, but also radically contrary to what the authors of these texts originally intended? In other words, our culture’s ideas, concepts, and beliefs about what religion is, God, salvation, faith, etc. are all drastically different from, and I would argue contrary to and negligent of, the various beliefs, religions, ideas about god Yahweh, salvation, faith, etc. presented, variously and contradictorily, in these ancient texts. We as a culture have created (and continuously re-create) a new religion, new ideas and criteria of salvation, new ideas of sacredness and holiness or the lack thereof, and new and contradictory ideas about God, and even new gods!—all of which support and justify our modern worldviews, beliefs, ideas, and even spirituality, etc. and these are created on the authority of this “Book,” and not on what this so-called Book’s many texts say nor claim. It’s a huge disconnect, that I would even argue, fuels further ignorance, prejudice, and hypocrisy. There’s the conversation, and I might link it back to another idea I’ve been writing about here and there on this blog: namely how humans create (perhaps need to create; it’s part of what we might identify as being human) narratives, fictions, which give meaning to our reality, provide a just rational to the cosmos and our existence, and moreover which actually then defines our reality. Now that is certainly a spiritual inquiry.

      Yet on the other hand, being adversarial seems to be a good criterion for publishing a book. I’m thinking of Sam Harris’ books, the new Jesus book by Aslan, Ehrman’s books, Dever’s, Friedman’s, etc. On another note, I was interviewed years ago as part of a spiritual documentary, The Reality of Truth. I’m not sure if they’ll use my clip or when this will eventually come out. But in the interview I mostly talk about understanding these texts as products of their historical worlds and how the modern trend of reading religious texts literally or as historical accounts concertizes any spirituality inherent in a religious symbol.

  3. Thanks much for the kind words and the detailed reply, Steven.

    I also like Levine’s scholarship. He’s something of an anomaly among his closest peers for holding in a postexilic P. Many Jewish scholars, and particularly Israelis, have tended to up-date P to the 7th century BCE or even earlier, perhaps consciously or unconsciously influenced by the early work of Yehezkel Kaufmann. Also Hurvitz’s philological work on Ezekiel and P any Knohl on H has been influential among that group – Milgrom leans heavily upon it, for example. Most European scholars completely reject this, from what I can tell, and assign P a postexilic provenance, similar to Wellhausen.

    I’ll write privately sometime, but unless you are writing physics books I’m afraid I can’t be of much help. Berlinerblau’s “The Secular Bible” was published by Cambridge, and while his objective was somewhat different and he is a fine scholar, I think the material you are mining is much more compelling. So I’m dismayed to hear that publishers have yet to show interest. Then again, it’s probably much tougher to sell a project like this intended for a bigger audience than a monograph on some hyperspecialized topic to an academic publisher who would just run off a few hundred copies for libraries. So keep plugging away, and see if you can get on Oprah! There are of course easier avenues to fame, but they tend to be incompatible with a career since they usually involve some jail time.

    My favorite book on this general subject is Kugel’s “How to Read the Bible”. It’s really superb, and Kugel’s expertise in ancient interpretations and his contrasting them with modern critical scholarship makes for a marvelous read. But his approach is to consider a series of pericopes, rather than the more comprehensive approach as you are taking, to examine contradictions and other difficulties on almost a chapter by chapter basis, and with a more focused objective of illuminating the different sources.

  4. It seems to me that the relevant difference between the situation in Num 5 and the laws against adultery articulated in Lev 20 and Deut 22 is that the pretext in Num 5 is that the act is not known. Deut 22:22 specifies “ki yimatzei ish shochev im-ishah…” = “if a man is found lying with a woman…”, and one might assume that Lev 20:10 similarly refers to an act which is known to have occurred. The death penalty is to be administered by humans. The fascinating pericope of the Sotah in Num 5, by contrast, requires some form of divination in order to ascertain the woman’s guilt. And although the ritual is carried out by the priest, the punishment “vetsavetah vitnah venaflah yerechah” = “her belly will distend and her thigh will rupture” (mentioned three times!) presumably comes from Yahweh, since otherwise drinking a mixture of water, dirt, and ink would probably at worst cause the woman to barf.

    A couple of things Steven didn’t mention here, which are discussed in Baruch Levine’s Anchor Bible Commentary on Numbers:

    Many modern commentators assume that the condition of the Sotah is pregnancy. The principal textual reason, it seems, is in 5:28 — if innocent, the woman “venizreah zara”, usually translated “shall retain seed” (i.e. she will not miscarry). Some translators take this instead to mean that she will continue to be fertile, providing no indication of an existing fetus. One might also maintain “beten” = “uterus” and “yarekh” = “vagina”, in which case the punishment is miscarriage of the bastard fetus. There are two difficulties with the position that the husband’s jealousy is due to a pregnancy. First, for what it’s worth, the rabbinic literature doesn’t seriously consider this as a possibility. The rabbis suggested it was the woman’s demeanor which somehow suggested to her husband that she had cheated on him. Second, in Num 5 it never explicitly states that the woman is pregnant. Compare with Exod 21:22 in the case of the fighting men who cause a woman to miscarry. There, the victim is identified as “ishah harah” =” a pregnant woman”, and the unforseen consequence is “veyatse’u yeladeyha” = “the child departs [the womb]”.

    The process as a whole seems to me to be a form of lot, like Urim and Thummim. The minchah knaot is a propitiatory offering requesting divine guidance. Levine makes a number of interesting comments. First, he points out that there is a Babylonian parallel in the Code of Hammurabi (CH). In CH, a suspected adulteress accused by her husband can resolve the matter by taking an oath, but if she is accused by someone else, then she is subjected to trial by ordeal — she’s thrown into a raging river and if she survives she’s deemed innocent. Second, he remarks that the act of dissolving the ink from the written curse into the potion must erase God’s name (as it is mentioned in the curse), which is usually held sacrosanct. This presumably was not a problem for the author of Num 5, but it should be for the rabbis. I am unaware of any reference to it in the Talmud.

    I very much enjoy this blog and I think it would eventually make for a wonderful book project, Steven. All these various examples of tensions and outright contradictions in the biblical text are tremendously instructive in demonstrating the different agendas, literary styles, provenance, and worldviews of the various biblical authors. Most books dedicated to biblical contradictions are snarky and written with the intent of ridiculing religious belief. That’s a mean-spirited and rather pointless objective, unlikely to appeal to a broad audience. One reason I like this blog is that Steven writes dispassionately and analytically, eschewing scholarly jargon, revealing in a lively way many facts and ideas which I think would be appreciated by a broad spectrum of readers.

    1. Daniel,

      Thank you very much for your insightful, and erudite, contribution. I had not looked at Levine’s commentary, which surprisingly I should have since it’s right here on my bookshelf, and in general I have much respect for his scholarly work. I will be relying heavily on his Anchor Bible commentary when I get started on the contradictions in Numbers, which hopefully should be soon.

      When I wrote this post I had considered bringing in the divinatory aspect of the whole affair mentioned in Num 5, but in the end decided just to highlight the tension between the different punishments. Indeed, as you point out, the whole affair in Num 5 requires some sort of divination to ascertain if adultery had been committed or not. Furthermore, the focus is on the adulteress, not the adulterer. I enjoyed the code of Hammurabi parallel. The public misses a lot of this, thinking that what the biblical scribe wrote was original, or divinely inspired—here the inspiration most likely comes from norms and worldviews characteristic of the whole Levant.

      Concerning your comments about this project making a good book, I totally agree. You pinpoint exactly why I started this project and the now 3 books I’m currently working on—to have the various divergent texts of what later generations of readers codified as “the Book” demonstrate—so it’s an objective task—their different and competing authorial agendas, theologies, worldviews, belief systems, ethical codes, views on God, etc. Another goal was to take the unlearned and “snarky” discussion of “contradictions in the Bible” out of the hands of apologists and even atheists, and place it back in the hands of trained biblical scholars. Much of this work builds upon the work of older colleagues in the field. But to my knowledge this material has never been presented in the detailed, and exhaustive, format followed here, and, to the general public at large. We are in great need of a book, many books!, that provide proper and unbiased knowledge and education about the Bible, its compositional history, its many and divergent traditions and texts, and the historical circumstances that produced them, etc. Unfortunately, and much to my surprise, I have been unsuccessful in persuading literary agents and editors of this. In fact, I pursued a Ph.D. mainly to write books, but apparently the literary agents and editors I’ve submitted my work to do not share my passion for biblical education and creating a dialogue about the Bible, and what it is and is not, in the broader public sphere. Bringing proper education about this so-called “Book” to the public—at a time when ignorance about it has been increasing—and in an engaging, provocative, lively, and even marketable manner is of secondary importance. They’re more concerned with—95% concerned I was told by one myopic agent—how many times I’ve appeared on Oprah, or in public media, or if I have over 100,000 likes on Facebook. I’m miffed. Those colleagues who have read my chapters are mystified as well. Sad to say, but we live in a world where the new expert is the one who has the largest social media platform, who can scream the loudest, and has the best social connections. Media dictates who our experts are now, not education, not a Ph.D. These are my embittered remarks anyhow. Correspond with me privately if you have any helpful advice in these matters.

  5. Good comment Steven, in the case of adultery in OT and NT theology is just that, ‘theology’ from who? ‘the people of the book’

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